in Criterion Month, Review

The Wages of Fear (1953)

Last February, Sean, Colin, and myself watched William Friedkin’s criminally underrated 1977 classic Sorcerer. Adapted from Georges Arnaud’s 1950 French novel “The Salary of Fear”, Sorcerer is a high stakes adventure film with stunning South American vistas and unforgettable action set pieces. But it wasn’t the first adaptation of the novel. It wasn’t even the second.

There was a loose American version of the story in 1958 titled “Violent Road” and before that Henri-Georges Clouzot’s classic The Wages of Fear (1953). Though this is supposed to be my take on The Wages of Fear, I feel it’s important to bring up Sorcerer. Because even after a single viewing I would put Sorcerer among the twenty or thirty best films I’ve ever seen.

Is it fair to judge The Wages of Fear solely through the lens of Sorcerer? Probably not, but it’s impossible for me to watch this film without constant reminders of my love for Sorcerer. Which is interesting because The Wages of Fear is not only the more famous of the two films but the more critically revered. I would argue this is because not as many people have seen Sorcerer (bad marketing and a misguided theatrical release) and thus less has been written about the film. So is it better than The Wages of Fear?

The Wages of Fear begins in Las Piedras, a small town in an unnamed South American country. Las Piedras is a town isolated in the mountains, stricken with poverty and overrun with scumbag criminals. Our main hero, or antihero, is Mario (Yves Montand), a Corsican playboy (he does wear a neckerchief after all), with Matinee idol good looks and an infectious charm. He even has a devoted girlfriend in Las Piedras, the fiery-tempered Linda (Vera Clouzot, who was also at the time the director’s wife).

Mario lives with a jovial Italian named Luigi (Folco Lull), a high-spirited man despite suffering from cement dust in his lungs that will eventually kill him. Wait a minute… Mario? Luigi? What do these guys look like?

Holy shit. Though it is worth pointing out the fatter one is Luigi. Still, interesting. Anyways, another character comes into the picture, an aging gangster named Jo (Charles Vanel) who finds an instant rapport with fellow Frenchman Mario. The pace of the film thus far is leisurely and light hearted. It reminds me of the film Stalag 17.

Both Stalag 17 and The Wages of Fear are films set in dreary places where people still manage to keep their spirits alive through friendship and optimism. It’s not as effective as Sorcerer’s use of vignettes to introduce characters but it does present the characters in a far more relatable, sympathetic light. These guys aren’t criminals any more than the guys you’d hang out with at your local bar.

A fire erupts at a nearby oil field run by an American oil business. With little recourse, they plan to blow up the fire using nitroglycerine. Except it just happens to be 300 miles from the site. Considering how unstable the material is, it’s considered too dangerous for the companies unionized employees to transport. In come the local scumbags.

By the way, I love the diverse nationalities in the cast with all the different languages and identities floating around. The Americans are brutish, careless, businessman. The Frenchmen, charming yet scheming, the Italian man is jolly, and later enters a grizzled German named Bimba (Peter van Eyck) who witnessed grave monstrosities living in Nazi occupied Germany.

The Americans hold tryouts for the scumbags—the plan is to have two trucks each with two drivers transporting the nitroglycerine—driving heavy duty vehicles. Mario, Luigi, Jo, and Bimba are selected and set out on their perilous adventure through the harsh mountains of rural South America. Coming back to Sorcerer, The Wages of Fear can’t compete with locations. There are a few cool spots, particularly a spooky forest sequence at night and a rocky cliff side where the men have to blow up a huge boulder blocking their path. Also, they rely heavily on fake projected backgrounds in driving sequences. Though it’s understandable. The film is older and they didn’t have the same clout. They just had the Clouzot.

A nice contrast between the two films is the time the characters spend getting to know each other. There must be like, two conversations in Sorcerer once they set out, so it’s nice to have people in The Wages of Fear we feel like we understand. It makes them easier to sympathize with. These guys don’t seem as hardened as the misfits of Sorcerer. Rather they are guys who made a few mistakes and ended up in an unfortunate situation. With Jo being the possible exception. He’s a real bad man.

Nothing comes close to the suspense of the rope bridge sequences in Sorcerer but if there is one memorable event in The Wages of Fear, it’s the oil crater sequence. In this sequence, Mario and Jo arrive at a crater filling with oil which turns out to be SPOILER the remains of Mario and Bimba’s truck after an unexpected explosion and they end up stuck. Both men get soaked head to toe in oil trying to push their vehicle out and somehow Mario ends up running over Jo with the truck. Shit. Although they eventually free the vehicle, Jo dies from his wounds and Mario finds himself in the burning oil field alone.

Hailed as a hero, Mario is given extra pay—ya know, cuz everybody else died—and heads back to Las Piedras in high spirits. Here’s where the film really stands out. Back in Las Piedras, Linda receives a message that Mario was successful and everyone in town throws a big party. There’s dancing and that one classical song from 2001: A Space Odyssey plays, you know, “The Blue Danube Waltz” by Johann Strauss.

The party is intercut with Mario driving back through a mountain pass, swerving his wheel with over confidence… Only to accidentally swerve off the mountain and die. FIN. Jesus Christ. Here’s what was going on in my head when I saw that: “Oh, I guess this has a happy end—OH SHIT NO! THAT’S SO F@$KING DARK!” It’s less ambiguous than the end of Sorcerer but more impactful.

At the end of the day, I feel bad. The Wages of Fear is a classic. It’s on the IMDB Top 250. It probably has two pages in that 1001 Moves You Must See Before You Die book and yet I can’t help but feel it’s the lesser version of a great story. Sorcerer has better visuals, a bigger budget, more complex set pieces, bigger effects, a more diverse cast, and sweet electronic music from the guys who scored Risky Business. The Wages of Fear feels quaint by comparison.

One interesting note is the author of the book, Georges Arnaud, hated The Wages of Fear. I’m not sure if he ever watched Sorcerer but if he saw imperfections in the original film there must be something wrong. Either way, it’s still a solid movie. Though I would still recommend seeing both if you’re interested in either. It’s fascinating to see two different takes on such a harrowing story.

Keep on truckin’.